USA Weekend Magazine, November 6, 2005
by Susan T. Lennon
When your body has too little iron, you’re anemic, but when it has too much, you have “iron overload,” a potentially fatal condition. And, your genes might be the culprit.
Hereditary Hemochromatosis (HH) is the leading genetic cause of excess iron, and it’s surprisingly common in the U.S.: one in eight is a “carrier,” one in two hundred has the double mutation that can cause the body to amass dangerous levels of iron. HH affects all ethnic and racial groups, but it’s most common among Caucasians of northern European ancestry, especially those of Celtic descent. About one million Americans have it.
With HH, toxic stores of iron accumulate over time, injuring the liver, heart, skin, and pancreas. “But if it can be detected before it starts to build up,” says Robert L. Jones, MD, President and CEO of the New York Blood Center, “You can avoid damage by donating blood.”
Unfortunately, possible early signs like depression, fatigue, impotence, infertility, joint pain, weakness, and weight loss could be the result of many other conditions. There are no actual symptoms of hemochromatosis, according to Jones, so by the time you’re diagnosed, irreversible damage is already done, resulting in arthritis, diabetes, heart failure, and liver disease.
But, there’s good news. If you have these unexplained symptoms, or a family history of hemochromatosis, your doctor can order transferrin saturation and serum
ferritin blood tests to check you for excess iron. Even better, as also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, genetic (DNA) testing will tell you whether you have the mutations that put you at risk for overload.
And, it you are at risk, treatment is simple and effective: you give blood (“therapeutic phlebotomy”). You can also minimize your iron storage by a savvy approach to diet and lifestyle: Enjoy the iron inhibitors: tea, coffee, calcium, chocolate, dairy products, and most foods high in fiber. But, avoid iron-promoters like beef, iron-fortified cereals, and Vitamin C. Pregnant women should not take iron supplements unless they have been tested for overload.